Fr Seán Kelly says that when Elizabeth O'Kelly gave him €12,000 to help fund the painting of the Catholic Church in Stradbally, Co Laois, she insisted there was no fuss made about her donation.
“She was a very simple, very humble, no-fuss lady. She didn’t parade her wealth or grandeur in any way. She didn’t ever present herself as a millionaire or anything like that,” said the priest.
Ms O’Kelly’s five-figure donation in life pales into insignificance in light of the extraordinary act of generosity by the Co Laois dowager that emerged this week almost two years after her death.
The late widow bequeathed €30 million to five charities – €6 million each to the Irish Cancer Society, Irish Heart Foundation, Irish Kidney Association, the Irish Society for Autism and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – after her death in December 2016 at the age of 92.
The RNLI said on Wednesday it was “deeply grateful and humbled” by the generosity of Ms O’Kelly, who for many years volunteered her time to help out at the RNLI stall at the RDS in Dublin. She held a high regard for the charity’s volunteer work, which appealed to her ethos, a spokesperson for the RNLI said.
“Throughout her life, she displayed great kindness towards her many friends and was most charitable in supporting those in need,” said the spokesperson.
The €6 million donation to the Irish Cancer Society alone was the largest donation ever received by the charity, and the equivalent of two annual Daffodil Day fundraising efforts. Ms O’Kelly had first-hand knowledge of the work carried out by the charity. She survived a battle with cancer in the 1980s.
“She was pleasant and very Christian-minded in her attitude to life and people. I’d say anybody that didn’t know her would be surprised to know that she was wealthy,” said Fr Kelly.
The extraordinary story of this multimillionaire has captured people’s imaginations, said one of the sources who knew Ms O’Kelly. Her backstory makes her charitable actions even more extraordinary.
Born in January 1924 and orphaned as an infant, she was brought to Ireland from France, her place of birth, as a two-year-old. Her father, Otway Richard Sykes of Yorkshire, and an older sibling had already died before she was born. She was raised by her paternal aunt Annette Sykes on Leeson Street in Dublin, who imbued in her a charitable and considerate ethos and a devotion to religion.
In 1945, at the age of 21, she married Maj John William O'Kelly, a veterinary surgeon in the British Army who was awarded an OBE. Her husband died on March 3rd, 1962.
She lived in Ballygoran in Maynooth, Co Kildare where she was remembered for her active social life and her "tennis parties and splendid teas". She later moved to Dower House on the grounds of Emo Park in Co Laois and, in her final years, lived in a Georgian house on Market Square in Stradbally.
“She lived very simply, very modestly but I would say very austerely,” said a source who knew her well. “That said, she was also extraordinarily generous and charitable to her friends.”
Her only extravagance was her love of travel – to India, North America and the Far East and on trips with the Georgian Society. She was also very active with the Co Kildare Archaeological Society and was involved with the Alliance Française owing to her French connection.
"She was very quiet, like a quiet maiden aunt. She would have reminded you of Miss Marple. She was very demure, a gentle sort of person – a lovely, lovely lady," said another person who knew her.
It was her ownership of 22 per cent of the Leinster Leader group of regional newspapers that brought both her biggest windfall and her public exposure as a wealthy widow. The media organisation was sold for €138.5 million in 2005. After debts were paid off, she took a near-quarter share of the €120 million spread among a diverse group of shareholders, paying capital gains tax in full on the sum.
She had a long association with the group but very much in the capacity of a silent shareholder. She went to her first annual general meeting of the group in the 1960s after her husband’s death.
“We only heard from her from agm to agm,” said one man who was involved in the business.
He speculated that few in Stradbally would have known of Ms O'Kelly until her €26.4 million share of the Leinster Leader group sale became public.
The altruism behind her biggest charitable act may have been driven by the fact that her biggest windfall came from the Leinster Leader shares passing to her as a result of two deaths: her husband's first wife Mary – a descendant of James Laurence Carew, the Parnellite MP for North Kildare who took control of the Leinster Leader in 1886 – and Ms O'Kelly's husband.
Handed a multimillion-euro windfall, and with no living relatives in Ireland, she decided to give it away.
“She regarded the money almost as if it was not her money to spend. She was comfortably well off and it had come to her through fortuitous circumstances; she took the view that she should do some good from it. From 2005, she decided she was going to give that money away to charity,” said a source.
Her first charitable act was to 180 Leinster Leader staff who each received a gift of €3,000 – "as a gesture of appreciation", the letter from a Dublin solicitor's office read without naming the shareholder. Each envelope sent to staff contained a cheque and landed just before Christmas 2005. The €3,000 limit was to avoid staff incurring any capital acquisitions tax on the gift.
Asked about the donation at the time by one newspaper, Ms O’Kelly refused to admit her generosity: “I imagine various people might have made [the donation], but it’s anonymous, so that’s that. I can’t give you any more information.”
Her wealth is believed to have come from two other families, the Coopers, who owned Markree Castle in Sligo, and the Bowen family, big landowners who lived at Kilnacourt in Portarlington.
“It was as if she was a recipient from several strands of family inheritance,” said one source.
Anyone who knew this deeply private woman spoke of her likely alarm at the publicity her massive donations have generated this week. Two sources, both close to her, each said she would be “horrified”.
“The one aspect of it she wouldn’t like is the publicity and the fuss,” said Fr Kelly.